River navigation became an important way to transport goods and supplies to and from farming districts. The first of the paddle steamers on the Murray River, the Mary Ann, made her first voyage in 1853. In the spring of that year, both the Mary Ann and the Lady Augusta reached Swan Hill and Echuca.
The government in Adelaide encouraged the river trade. The transport of goods through the river port of Goolwa, and from there to the Adelaide docks, helped boost business in the colony. From 1854 a horse-drawn tramway linked Goolwa to Port Eliot, south of Adelaide, aiding in the transport of goods.
The first two paddle steamers were soon joined by many more. Ultimately nearly 200 vessels carried wool and produce to the major river ports for transport to Australian cities and overseas. They returned with foodstuffs and other supplies. The reach of the paddle steamers depended on the season. When the water was high, they reached Albury on the Murray, Gundagai on the Murrumbidgee and Walgett on the Darling. In 1890 one steamer, the PS Brewarrina, reached Mungindi in Queensland – a feat that was never repeated.
In drought years, the Darling and Murrumbidgee Rivers often became unnavigable and the steamers could only reach as far as Echuca on the Murray. The most important cargo was wool, which was transported after the spring shearing when water levels were most reliable and highest.
In 1862, a rail link was completed between Echuca and Melbourne. Dubbed “the meeting of the whistles”, this allowed producers in the Murray Darling basin to send their goods by river to Echuca and from there by rail to the Melbourne port. Echuca became the major river port, diverting much of the trade from South Australia. At this time, Echuca was the second-busiest port in Victoria and the fourth busiest in Australia, after Sydney, Melbourne and Newcastle.
From the early 1900s, road and rail transport improved and the unreliability of water levels made river transport less attractive. The paddle steamers were largely replaced by trucks and trains.